The Late Mycenaean Period, the Dark Age and Homer, 1300–900 bc Part II

One of the most enlightening passages in the Iliad is in Book IV, 132, when Menelaos is wounded by an arrow. This arrow strikes the golden clasp of his zoster, which is made of bronze. It passes through this, and his cuirass, and then pierces the mitra, which he wore as a last defence against missiles. Describing the incident later (Iliad IV, 186), Menelaos says that the arrow was stopped by his zoster, his zoma and his mitra, which was either made by the bronzesmiths or had bronze put on it. Either translation is possible. The first passage gives us clearly enough the order in which the armour was worn. The word zoster means a belt in later times and that seems a reasonable translation here. It is described as well-wrought and shining, which tells us that it is metal, or perhaps metal plates on a leather belt (Liddell and Scott 1968, p. 760). It is worn over the cuirass, and the mitra was worn under the cuirass. In later times mitra can mean a boxer’s girdle, which is perhaps closest to its meaning here. Buchholz and Wiesner (1977, p. 127) associate it with the belts worn by Dark Age warrior statuettes and say it was overlapped sometimes by a metal cuirass. They say that the zoster, on the other hand, was a bronze belt worn over a tunic of linen and the zoma was a synonym for either word (ibid. p. 142). The objections to these conclusions can be found in the two above passages concerning Menelaos that we have been discussing. It is clear that Menelaos was wearing all three pieces of armour at the same time, and with a bronze cuirass.

The word zoma is also used by Homer as something worn by boxers, and it is clear that it must be a loincloth. The zoster was a belt worn over the cuirass, whether it was bronze or linen. It is possible that it was a baldric rather than a waist belt, but I think this is unlikely. The mitra remains a problem. It was a visible part of the armour and perhaps attached to it, as seems likely from the epithet amitrachitones (literally ‘mitra-corsletted’ or mitra-tuniced’) (Iliad XVI, 419), and its use as a last defence against missiles suggests to me something more substantial than a waist belt. There is no archaeological evidence until the seventh century for the semicircular abdominal guards found mostly in Crete and misnamed mitras, and I think the word is most likely describing an armoured kilt such as is worn on the Mycenaean Warrior Vase. This would allow for the three layers of armour in the region of the waist for Menelaos’s arrow to penetrate, and fits well with the phrase ‘with the bronze they put on it’, since these kilts are generally agreed to have been leather with bronze studs.

King (1970, p. 294) has taken a different line, in which she compares Homer’s descriptions to the Dendra-style armour. She argues that zoster is in fact the armoured skirt from the Dendra suit, which is why it is never mentioned separately in the arming scenes, since it was attached to the cuirass. King also interprets guala as the shoulder guards as well as the inner cuirass. These arguments can be rejected on the following grounds. Guala is too general a word to represent a specific item of equipment, and for something not to be mentioned in the arming scenes is not a strong argument. King makes no mention of the mitra, and I imagine that it would have been superfluous to wear an armoured kilt under the Dendra-style skirt of bronze. The most telling argument perhaps is that Amphius wore a zoster with a linen corslet (Iliad II, 830 and V, 615), which is perfectly acceptable for a bronze waist belt, but not for an armoured skirt of Dendra style. Also the zoster is often described as having a golden clasp, which Dendra ‘belts’ did not have. Finally, Dendra-style armour had gone out of use by 1300 and Homer rarely mentions items that were in use only in that earliest period; the large body shield of Ajax is one of the few exceptions. Most Homeric references can be securely dated to the Late Mycenaean or Dark Age periods.

When talking about corslets made of a material backing reinforced with bronze, I have referred to bronze-reinforced leather, because such illustrations as we have seem to suggest this. When we come to greaves, however, we will see that there is evidence for the use of linen, and there is also evidence for the use of linen body armour at this time, although it is less practical to attach bronze reinforcements to linen. There was a fragment of multilayered linen in the Shaft Graves at Mycenae, which has been interpreted as armour, but our first real proof for its use comes from Homer. The lesser Aias and Amphius are both described as linothorex (linen-corsletted), but Homer neglects to go into details and they could have been made in a variety of ways: either woven from thick cord, built up of many thin layers, or padded. I will discuss these various designs later when the linen corslet gained in popularity in the Archaic period, and we have more evidence for its design. For the present, it is interesting to note the two characters who did wear this armour. The lesser Aias could be insolent and unpleasant, and Amphius is a nondescript, second-class character. All the great heroes wore bronze, and this shows the secondary position of linen armour in the Late Mycenaean period – or perhaps just Homer’s opinion of it.

On a couple of occasions Homer also mentions gold armour (Iliad VI, 234 ff. and X, 439), and implies that it was of the same design as the bronze armour but more costly. It was worth one hundred oxen, as opposed to the nine oxen that a normal panoply was worth. Both sets of armour were worn by non-Greeks: Glaucus the Trojan and Rhesus, King of Thrace. Homer despises such armour, saying it was fit only for the gods. It no doubt occurred to him that gold armour was useless as a defence, and it is plain that he is not describing gilded armour. The passages remind me of the gold pectorals from the Shaft Graves of Mycenae and from Enkomi, and it seems possible that Dark Age tomb robbers had found such items, and believed that some warriors of old had in fact worn gold breastplates in battle. It is possible, of course, that gilded bronze armour was worn by the exceedingly rich, but it would have been expensive and also impractical in battle, where the gilding would soon have been damaged.

As we have seen, the evidence for body armour in this period is slight, especially considering the lack of it in the otherwise rich Achaean tombs. After 1100 there seems to be little evidence for bronze armour apart from Homer and, with the collapse of the palace system and the lack of bronze coming into the country, we must assume leather or linen corslets, if any, down to the reintroduction of bronze armour in c. 800.


The evidence for greaves and leggings is clearer than that for body armour, but still problematical in parts. Schauer’s study (1982, passim) still gives the best overall picture, although there have been important recent finds which were not known about when he wrote. The plain bronze greave type that was found in the Dendra cuirass tomb seems to have disappeared, but illustrations of ‘leggings’ abound (Vermeule and Karageorghis 1982, figs XI.3, XI.7, XI.18, XI.28, XI.42, XI.43, XI.49, XI.53, XI.59, XI.63). Those on the palace frescos at Pylos are long, covering the knee, and clearly tied on (Bossert 1937, p. 31, fig. 42). They are painted white, which has suggested to some that they were made of metal, but considering the shape of surviving metal greaves this seems unlikely. I would suggest that they are made of linen but, since most of the pottery depictions show black leggings, it would seem that leather was commoner, perhaps particularly after the great catastrophe of c. 1200 which would have disrupted trade. Leather leggings are in fact mentioned in the Odyssey (XXIV, 228), but they are worn by a farmer to protect him from thorns, and it is speculative to stretch this to a military use.

We do have some examples of short metal greaves of an elliptical form from this period, and the Pylos frescos show such an elliptical form on one leg of each of the Pylos warriors who wears ‘linen’ leggings. Because of the style of the fresco painting, it is difficult to ascertain whether the elliptical shape is on the left or right leg. Fortenberry (1991, passim) opts for the right, but Schauer (1982, p. 149) is surely right to suggest the leading left leg, which would have been more exposed in combat. The early Roman republican army often wore single greaves on the left leg, which was cheaper than a matching pair (Arrian Ars tactica, as quoted by Connolly 1998, p. 133). I suggested that because the Dendra greave was so thin, it was probably stitched to a material legging. The Pylos frescos seem to support the idea of a metal greave or greaves being worn over a much larger material legging, rather than directly on the leg like later Archaic and Classical greaves.

Many such elliptical greaves have been found in the Urnfield culture of Central Europe, and the Greek examples are thought by some to have originated from there (Yalouris 1960, p. 49). However, there are two reasons why this does not seem to me to be the case. Firstly, the greave appears in Greece over 300 years before it does in Europe with the Dendra example, and the later Mycenaean ones I am about to discuss still probably pre-date the earliest Hallstatt greaves, although dating the latter is tricky. The second reason is design.

Let us consider the Late Mycenaean examples. The earliest known greaves of this period, dating to c. 1200, are from the tombs at Enkomi in Cyprus, but were not found with the scales mentioned above. A greave from Tomb 18 is badly corroded and fragmented, and only the lower half is preserved (Catling 1955, p. 23). It is 2mm thick, with the bronze rolled over at the edges for extra strength. The border is 6mm thick and decorated with diagonal lines. Riveted to the edge is a piece of bronze wire lacing, through which leather thongs would have been threaded to tie the greave at the back of the leg. There is no visible decoration on this piece, but other fragments show heavy embossed lines similar to the decoration on the Kallithea greaves, and the original decoration may have been of this nature.

Tomb 15 at the same site produced a non-matching pair of greaves of similar design. The best preserved is almost the complete right side of a greave which was probably for the left leg, as there is a bulge for the calf muscle (Catling 1955, p. 30). This greave is also 2mm thick and is decorated with two repoussé lines running around the greave, 1cm from the edge. Although not visible in the photograph, there was also a repoussé line running vertically from top to bottom down the middle of the greave, the first few centimetres of which still survive. There is also some decoration on the face of the greave, which is hard to detect owing to the corrosion. On the upper half of the greave is an embossed stud surrounded by a circle of fine punched holes. The use of embossing is reminiscent of the helmets and corslets in use at this time, and the fact that such decoration follows on from the direct use of bronze studs on leather leggings. Indeed, the embossed circle is very similar to the later Tiryns helmet mentioned above. The edges of the greave are rolled over, but the bronze lacing wire is not riveted directly to the greave. It is riveted to a long strip of bronze, which is in turn then riveted to the greave. This suggests to me that the original lacing had become damaged, and that a bronze lacing section had been taken from another greave (old or damaged), and riveted onto this one. The extra work of riveting the lacing onto a strip of bronze and then riveting that strip onto the greave would have made no sense unless it was a repair. All other known laces like this are riveted directly to the greave.

The second greave from this tomb is only a fragment and, at first glance, the two look like a pair. However, this second greave has double repoussé lines much closer to the edge (6mm) and, like the Tomb 18 example, the bronze lacing wire is attached directly to the greave. Catling (1955, p. 30) suggested that they are the remains of two pairs of greaves, but given that the Dendra warrior perhaps had only one greave, that Tomb 18 at Enkomi had only one greave, and that the Pylos frescos show the use of one greave, then perhaps we have two single greaves here rather than a pair. There may have been two warriors buried in this tomb, each with his own greave, or perhaps a wealthy warrior who possessed two greaves in the same way as he might have had two spears or swords. If we accept that one greave had been repaired after being damaged, it is also possible that this was a pair of greaves worn by a single warrior, which just no longer matched. That they would be reused and repaired also gives us some indication of the value of these items.

The other Greek greaves we have are all matching pairs, two from Achaea and a pair from Athens. Tomb B at Kallithea in Achaea, which produced the bronze strips now thought to be from a ‘tiara’ helmet or scabbard, also produced a pair of greaves dating from perhaps 1180. These are of a more oval design than the Enkomi greaves (although they have been heavily restored), and are more heavily embossed with repoussé borders and embossed studs. They also have lacing wires almost identical to the Cypriot examples and riveted directly onto the greaves. Yalouris (1960, p. 46) has cleverly interpreted the design as being derived from bronze-reinforced leather greaves. He suggests the space in between the repoussé lines going around the edge and down the centre of the greave as being representations of bronze strips on a leather backing, and suggests the diagonal lines as being representations of fastening straps held in place by a central stud.

A further pair of greaves was found at Portes-Kephalovryson in Achaea, in the tomb which produced the ‘tiara’ helmet (Papadopoulos, in Laffineur 1999, p. 271 and plate LIXa). Their discovery is yet to be properly published, but from the excavation photograph they appear to be of a similar shape to the Enkomi greaves, and also to have the elaborate lacing wires. According to Papadopoulos they are undecorated, but after cleaning we may discover some slight decoration like the Enkomi ones. They are certainly very different from the Kallithea pair.

The final pair of Late Mycenaean greaves came from a tomb on the slopes of the Athenian acropolis. They were originally thought to be from the Geometric period, that is tenth or ninth century (Snodgrass 1971, p. 47 after Platon 1965, Archaeologikon Deltikon 20, B.1, p. 32), but have now been fairly conclusively proved to be from c. 1200 like the Cypriot and Achaean examples (Mountjoy 1984, passim). The greaves are very fragmentary, and there are no surviving lacing wires. The bronze was not rolled over at the edges, and there are a couple of edge holes on one piece. These may have been for loops to hold lacing wires, but the greaves may have had more simple fastenings, like some of the Central European specimens. Apart from that they resemble the Kallithea greaves in that they are oval in shape, and the Enkomi greaves in that they have fine, punch-marked decoration. In this case it consists of a border and central vertical line and six circles on each greave.

Very similar decoration was found on some bronze fragments from Kaloriziki on Cyprus, and it is quite likely that they came from another greave or greaves, although Catling (1964, p. 144 and plate 17e) restored them as part of a shield. Holes are visible at the edge for attaching to a backing, or for bronze lacing wires, although these were not found and may not have existed. The pieces are very fragmentary and the tomb had been much disturbed.

The European greaves of this period and later have decoration similar to the Kallithea and Athens greaves, which has led some scholars to believe that the Greeks got the idea of greaves from Central Europe. Schauer (1982, pp. 152–3) points out that the main difference between Greek and European greaves is the fastening. All the European greaves, except for one late Italian copy of the Greek design, have only single rings or loops of wire at the edges of greaves, which do not fold around the leg to such an extent. They are much more basic plates of bronze protecting the front of the leg. Although dating is difficult, they probably did not appear until 1100 at the earliest, in the Hallstatt A period.

It is much more likely that the Central Europeans copied the Greek greaves, including their decorations, but simplified the shape and the fastenings. Yalouris (1960, p. 47) suggested that greaves, like many military developments, came from the Near East via Cyprus, but this can be refuted. There are no artistic representations, and the only literary reference is Goliath the Philistine in the Bible (I Samuel 17: 4), who wears a pair of greaves with his scale armour. This episode is set in the eleventh century and may well have been written later, so it does not count for much. Also, the Philistines are quite possibly descended from the Peleset, one of the Sea Peoples, who brought war to the Near East and may have had a Greek or Central European origin (Astrom 1977, p. 48; Sandars 1964, passim).

Homer mentions the ‘well-greaved’ Achaeans some forty times in the Iliad, which rules out later interpolation as suggested by Lorimer (1950, pp. 253 ff.) who was writing before the discovery of Bronze Age greaves on mainland Greece. Homer also mentions greaves three times in a standard phrase (e.g. Iliad III, 330–1) which tells us that they were put on first, followed by the cuirass. This was because once the cuirass or corslet was on, the warrior would be unable to bend easily to fasten his greaves. These greaves are presumably bronze, although Hephaestus made a special tin pair for Achilles (Iliad XVIII, 613) and these had close-fitting silver guards or clasps (episphuriois) at the ankles. There is no evidence for ankle guards until the seventh century and ones made of silver are unlikely. A silver peg was apparently found near the Dendra greave and could have been part of a fastening (Schauer 1982, p. 148), or perhaps the word refers to the elaborate lacing wires that we have seen on the excavated examples, although these are not connected only at the ankle.

All the evidence we have for Late Mycenaean metal greaves fits into the period from c. 1220 to c. 1150 (c. 1050 if the Kaloriziki fragments are greaves), and the decline of the palace system must have been responsible for their disappearance. Bronze greaves continued in use in Central Europe, and this must have been because of the availability of bronze locally. As with body armour, bronze greaves seemed to disappear from Greece completely, to emerge in a quite different form in c. 800. For the rest of the period, perhaps from 1100 down to 900, we must assume that leather leggings were the only armour available.


If there seems to have been a reduction in body armour in the Late Mycenaean period, there was certainly a reduction in shield size. The great body shields ceased to exist in art by c. 1300 and were replaced with smaller, mostly round shields. Rather strangely, the frescos at Pylos do not show shields at all for the warriors armed with helmets and greaves, but shields are more common on pottery fragments. Small round shields of perhaps 50–60cm are being carried by chariot warriors on three separate vases illustrated by Vermeule and Karageorghis (1982, plates XI.1A, XI.1B and XI.28). These were presumably carried by a central handgrip.

The Mycenaean Warrior Vase and Stele, which definitely show infantry, include rather larger shields. The better-preserved side of the Warrior Vase shows 60–70cm round shields with a segment cut out from the bottom. The artist does not show how the shield was carried and, when it was held up in combat, this cut-out may have been on the warrior’s right-hand side to make a gap for an underarm spear thrust. Otherwise its purpose is uncertain. The warriors on the other side of the vase and on the stele have even larger oval shields, measuring perhaps as much as a metre across. One of these shows a handle which is not being gripped, implying the existence of a shoulder strap (Lorimer 1950, p. 146; Snodgrass 1967, p. 32). So it seems there were smaller shields carried by chariot warriors, and larger shields with shoulder straps carried by infantry. Lorimer (1950, pp. 148–9) illustrates a vase fragment showing two men on foot holding small shields, but it is most likely that they have just disembarked from their chariot, which is also shown.

Archaeological evidence for shields comes in the form of bronze shield bosses which were used on at least some of these shields, although they are not clearly shown in the art. Mouliana in Crete has produced a twelfth-century example (Snodgrass 1967, p. 32), and eleventh-century examples have been found in Grave XXVIII at Tiryns, which produced the helmet, and Tomb 24 at the Kerameikos in Athens (Snodgrass 2000, p. 319). These are generally domed with a flat edge or border, sometimes decoratively embossed, and would have covered a central handgrip on a round shield. Kaloriziki in Cyprus also produced an example of a shield boss of the eleventh century with a dome and large spike (Snodgrass 1967, p. 45). Found with this shield were two further discs which were interpreted as additional bosses on the shield, and bronze edging, giving a shield shape with an alleged cut-out similar to that on the Mycenaean Warrior Vase (Catling 1964, plate 18; Snodgrass 1967, plate 14). The shape is more exaggerated than the vase and the shield reconstruction looks too wide to be practical. The ‘edging’ does not exist at the top of the shield where it would have been most needed, and the two smaller bosses are more likely to have come from somewhere else: perhaps a corslet or maybe a pair of cymbals, which are also occasionally found as grave goods. Only one sharp bend in the bronze edging is visible in Catling’s plate and I would place this at the bottom of the shield, making a kite shape. This would then look very similar to the larger oval shields on the Mycenaean Warrior Vase. The pieces would obviously benefit from re-examination. Unlike the evidence for helmets, armour and greaves, there is evidence for the existence of shield bosses throughout the Dark Age, to c. 900 and beyond, showing that the round shield continued in use (Snodgrass 1967, p. 44). Shields with bronze bosses were, nevertheless, prestige items. The very rich warrior graves of Achaea, which have produced two out of the three known pairs of Late Mycenaean greaves, have produced only one bronze shield boss (Papadopoulos, in Laffineur 1999, p. 271). Since chariots ceased to exist after about 1000, it seems likely that the small shield used by chariot warriors went out of use, leaving only the larger round or elliptical shield used by infantry. This would eventually develop into the hoplite shield.


The spear became a lighter weapon after 1200. Gone were the 3-metre examples used with the body shield, and now there were only one-handed spears, as clearly depicted on the Mycenaean Warrior Vase. The spear seems to have been about 2 metres long, with a 20–30cm leaf-shaped blade of bronze. Many of the warrior tombs of Achaea contained a single spear (as well as a sword) of bronze with this type of blade (Papadopoulos, in Laffineur 1999, pp. 267 ff.). Tomb B from Kallithea was also provided with a butt spike of bronze to protect the other end of the spear, and possibly for use as a secondary weapon should the spearhead break off (Papadopoulos, in Laffineur 1999, p. 269 and plate LVIIb). This is the earliest example of the spear-butt in mainland Greece, but there are also some contemporary examples in Cyprus (Snodgrass 1967, p. 29). A grave from the Kerameikos in Athens produced a similar bronze blade dating from c. 1050, but this was paired with a much smaller blade (9cm), suggesting a throwing spear or javelin (Snodgrass 2000, p. 223). A flame-shaped spearhead type, which was an import from the Balkan area, has also been found in parts of north-west Greece, Kephallenia and Crete. Clearly a combat spear, the type does not seem to have caught on (Snodgrass 2000, pp. 306–7).

The soldiers on the Mycenaean Warrior Vase hold one spear, and are using it overarm as a thrusting spear; but another vase fragment (Vermeule and Karageorghis 1982, Plate XI.28) clearly shows a chariot warrior carrying two spears, suggesting that one at least might be thrown. However, his companion has no spear as he is driving the chariot, so perhaps the first warrior is just holding his companion’s spear until they both dismount and fight. Other fragments seem to show chariot warriors with only one spear, which seems to be more practical with a small, hand-held shield (Vermeule and Karageorghis 1982, plates XI.1B, XI.16, XI.57). Later on two or more spears, including one for throwing, seem to have been the norm, so this system could have occurred at the end of the Mycenaean period. In the eleventh century, iron started to be used for daggers and swords but not yet for spears, possibly because of the difficulty in fashioning a spear socket; but in the tenth century iron spears began to appear as well (Snodgrass 2000, p. 224). By c. 900, bronze spearheads had died out except in some of the more remote regions, but butt spikes, where used, continued to be made of bronze.

From c. 1050 until c. 900, it often seems to be the case that a warrior was buried with either a sword or a spear, but it is difficult to know whether this was some measure of status or whether the weapons were indeed used as alternatives. Looking at the soldiers on the Pylos frescos fighting the ‘barbarians’ by the river, we can see that one has just a sword, and one just a spear. After c. 900 spears were more common in multiples (and were buried with swords) and must have been used as throwing weapons as portrayed in the Iliad (Snodgrass 1967, pp. 37–9). Homer often describes warriors carrying pairs of spears and throwing them in battle. Even when warriors have only one spear, it is just as likely to be thrown (Lorimer 1950, pp. 258–9). The spearheads in Homer are always made of bronze, and Hector’s is mentioned with a gold band around the joint between head and shaft (Homer, Iliad VI, 319). The only other evidence for spear decoration at this time is the Mycenaean Warrior Vase, which appears to show flags or large tassels attached to the spears.


The sword also became a shorter and lighter weapon during the thirteenth century. The long Cross-hilted sword went out of use by about 1250. Swords of Horned Type 2a developed into weapons with shorter blades, usually of 35–40cm, known as Horned Type 2b. Another short sword also appeared in about 1250, known as Type F after the classification by Sandars (1961, 1963, passim; Kilian-Dirlmeier 1993, pp. 76 ff.). These swords also averaged 35–40cm in length for the most part and had similar hilts with cross bars at the top, but no sign of horns, which were perhaps no longer considered essential. A similar, but even shorter weapon, called Type E by Sandars, was really only a dagger and is not generally considered to be a weapon of war, but a tool (Kilian-Dirlmeier 1993, plates 66–7). It is probably a Type F short sword that is being wielded by a warrior on the Pylos frescos, and perhaps also on a Late Mycenaean vase fragment (Vermeule and Karageorghis 1982, plate XI.49). These short weapons were much more practical for cut-and-thrust fighting and for general carrying about in these troubled times (Snodgrass 1967, p. 28) but, although they lasted into the twelfth century, they were ousted by a new sword from the north.

This new sword is known as the ‘Griffzungenschwert’ or, more usually, the Naue II Type. It seems to have been invented in Central Europe, where the earliest and best examples have been found (Snodgrass 1967, p. 29), and came into Greece before the great catastrophe: that is, before c. 1230. It had a flanged hilt, with a distinctive curved outline where rivets fasten the grip to the sword, making it a very strong cut-and-thrust weapon. The known examples are usually 60 to 80cm long, but daggers with the same handle type are also known. The earliest examples must have been imports and, since they pre-date the great catastrophe, cannot have been brought in by invaders as was once thought. The Greeks were soon making the Naue II Type sword themselves, and the design was so effective that it became virtually the only sword used in Greece for the next four or five hundred years. It was also widely adopted in Italy, Cyprus, Egypt and the Near East. The only change that happened to the sword was its translation into iron from the middle of the eleventh century. Tomb 28 at Tiryns produced a Naue II Type dagger in iron and there is a 48cm sword from the Kerameikos in Athens, which both date from c. 1050 (Snodgrass 2000, pp. 220–3). From this time down to 900, nearly every Greek sword is a Naue II Type in iron. There are a few examples in bronze from outlying parts, but these are just as likely to have been heirlooms as contemporary weapons (Snodgrass 2000, p. 241). Iron is stronger than bronze, and can be given a sharper edge. It is also slightly lighter, and some of the iron Naue II Types are longer than any known bronze example, approaching 90cm in length. This is the combined cutting and slashing weapon that features in the Iliad, capable of cutting off an arm or a head (Lorimer 1950, p. 270). Only an iron sword could do that, although swords in the Iliad are always described as being of bronze, in a throwback to an earlier time.

Homer often describes the swords as silver-studded, which reminds us of earlier Mycenaean swords from the Shaft Graves with their golden rivets. Swords with silver rivets are also known, but are rarer and none is known after 1200 (Lorimer 1950, pp. 273–4). Homer also describes swords as well hilted (kopeis) and, on one occasion, bound with black thongs (melandeton) (Homer, Iliad XVI, 332; XX, 475; XV, 713). Evidence we have for hilts at this time shows they were mainly made of ivory or wood, but thongs would generally not have survived. They would certainly have helped to give a good grip. A recently discovered, rare survival is a wooden scabbard from Krini in Achaea, dating from c. 1150 (Papadopoulos, in Laffineur 1999, p. 271 and plate LVIIIc). This was covered in leather and further decorated with cut-out strips and studs of bronze. Similar studs and strips have been found at Kallithea and Lakkithra (as mentioned above) which may also be from scabbards, and this shows the care with which these swords were treated, and the value they must have had. Swords, like spears, could also be decorated with tassels, as is shown on a vase fragment of c. 1200 (Vermeule and Karageorghis 1982, plate. XI.59).


Archery continued to be practised in the Late Mycenaean period; the palace at Pylos produced 500 arrowheads, showing they were produced for the military. Other finds and depictions are rare. None of the warrior graves from Achaea has produced any arrowheads. A vase in the British Museum from Enkomi dating to the twelfth century shows archers presumably marching to war, but maybe they are going on a hunt. Vermeule and Karageorghis, in their corpus of Mycenaean pictorial vase painting (1982, plate XI.58), illustrate only one archer, which also tells us little. After the great catastrophe of c. 1200, evidence becomes even slighter. There are a few large bronze arrowheads from Greece, including a tenth-century example from the Kerameikos in Athens (Snodgrass 2000, p. 233), but most examples come from Crete, which seems to have begun now to develop its later reputation as a land of archers (Snodgrass 1967, p. 40). Tiryns has also produced two obsidian examples (Snodgrass 2000, p. 274).

By the tenth century arrowheads in Crete are made of iron, and the simple bow is replaced by the composite bow. This has pieces of horn attached to the inner edge of the bow, and sinew attached to the outer edge. When the bow is drawn the sinew is stretched and the horn is compressed, both of which give the bow greater power. Homer (Iliad IV, 105 ff.) mentions such a bow but seems to have an incomplete understanding of it, thinking it was made entirely of horn. It is possible that the composite bow did not reach mainland Greece until the eighth century, when there is a great increase in its depiction in art. In the Iliad, Homer often depicts arrows being shot in the thick of the fight (XV, 313–14; XIII, 711–20), but they were not used in hand-to-hand combat by any of the great heroes. Indeed they frequently had negative connotations (Reboredo Morillo 1996, pp. 16–19) such as in the depiction of Teucros, who hides behind Aias’s shield and comes out to shoot (Iliad VIII, 265–72). With the archery it is really unclear to what extent Homer is remembering the Late Mycenaean period or is mixing in contemporary material of the eighth century, when there was a brief flourishing of archery after the apparent lapse in the Dark Age. There is no further evidence for the military use of the sling in this period (Pritchett 1991).

To conclude: the Late Mycenaean period was one of expansion and prosperity, probably leading to an increase in armed forces put into the field by the palaces. Perhaps as a result of this, soldiers were less well equipped with body armour, and infantry outnumbered chariots by a larger margin. The chariot also seemed to become lighter and faster (Bloedow, in Laffineur 1999, p. 456). The chariot warriors wore greaves and carried small shields, while the infantry also wore greaves but carried larger, oval shields. These ‘greaves’ were mostly non-metallic leggings. Most actual fighting was done on foot with the thrusting spear used in combat, supported by the short cut-and-thrust sword, or the longer Naue II Type which was coming into use. Archers and slingers also played their role. After the great catastrophe of c. 1200, the palace system gradually collapsed, and that seems to have led to a reduction in chariotry and archery (and slingers?). The infantry continued to fight in the same way, with the richest still being able to afford metal greaves and other armour, and perhaps a personal chariot. Gradually the chariot died out and was perhaps replaced with horse riding. Our evidence for this comes from Homer where, in some passages, he clearly confuses chariots with horses, apparently showing that mounted warriors were in use in Homer’s time, i.e. by c. 800 (Delebecque, quoted in Greenhalgh 1973, pp. 67–8). Actual combat was still on foot, even if the warrior arrived by chariot or horse. Also after c. 1200, the thrusting spear was replaced by two or more throwing spears. The Naue II Type sword also became the sword of choice and was manufactured in iron. These long cut-and-thrust swords, small shields and the throwing spears suggest a skirmishing type of warfare. Metallic body armour, including helmets and greaves, seemed to die out entirely, due to the economic collapse and the cessation of overseas trade to obtain copper and tin for bronze making. Greece slipped slowly into the darkest part of the Dark Age after c. 1050.

2 thoughts on “The Late Mycenaean Period, the Dark Age and Homer, 1300–900 bc Part II

  1. Pingback: The Late Mycenaean Period, the Dark Age and Homer, 1300–900 bc Part II – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

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